Fears over a grand coalition are again haunting Germany’s social democracy. As was the case in 2005, the new coalition is comprised of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, together with the CSU, its Bavarian pendant) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Such a composition worries many Social Democrats given the last experience with a coalition in 2009 when the SPD vote share shrank by 12.2 per cent. Some Social Democrats are even doubtful about whether the SPD can survive another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU.
While the pessimism is understandable, it is misplaced. Another grand coalition will not necessarily produce negative consequences for Germany’s Social Democracy, for three reasons.
First and most importantly, there is no clear pattern whereby the smaller coalition partner loses in a grand coalition. The two previous grand coalitions at the national level offer mixed examples. While the last experience was surely painful for the SPD, it actually benefited from the first grand coalition from 1966 to 1969. Despite some unpopular decisions in the Social Democratic camp at the time, such as the emergency laws (Notstandsgesetze), the SPD received part of the credit from its association with several governmental accomplishments, most notably the economic policies that led to the end of Germany’s first economic recession after World War II. At the time, the SPD had managed to find the right balance between its own political autonomy and participation in the grand coalition, acquiring a reputation for pragmatism and responsibility. This was most embodied by Karl Schiller, the minister of the economy, Herbert Wehner, the party chairman, and Helmut Schmidt, the leader of the SPD’s parliamentary group. Despite being the junior partner in a grand coalition, the SPD thus succeeded in proving its worth. This, in turn, helped the Social Democrats take over as the majority party in 1969, putting an end to 20 years of Christian Democratic dominance.
Second, unlike 2005, during the latest coalition negotiations the SPD managed to bring social democratic issues to the fore, promoting its popular image as the party of social justice. This had previously proven to be one of the party’s main stumbling blocks during the grand coalition from 2005 to 2009. For example, although the SPD and CDU/CSU had equal votes in parliament, the Social Democrats failed to block an increase in the retirement age to 67. This provoked severe criticism from the trade unions, the SPD’s natural social allies. To avoid a similar fiasco, the SPD has insisted this time on a number of social policies in the 2013 coalition treaty, such as the introduction of a minimum wage, more flexibility in the pension system, an increase in old-age pensions and benefits for the chronically ill as well as an increase in social expenditure on matters like education, health and family benefits. Even though the CDU/CSU did not give in on same sex marriage and made only minor concessions on the issue of double citizenship, the SPD could enforce positions fostering its working class image. These are respectable accomplishments given that the SPD holds only a quarter of the seats this time.
Finally, the SPD might no longer have to fear that the CDU will continue to assimilate social-democratic issues. The rather unexpected rise of the euro sceptic and national-conservative alternatives for Germany, namely the (AfD) might be a serious opponent to the CDU/CSU on the political right, challenging the CDU/CSU not to abandon all of its socially-conservative positions and questioning its recent rapprochement towards the centre-left. Although the AfD narrowly missed the threshold to enter parliament, with its 4.7 per cent haul, it has been the most successfully performing party in its first general elections since 1957. The AfD might put an end to the German norm where the political left has been more fragmented than the right. This could end the asymmetric power advantage questioning the CDU/CSU’s self-identity as Germany’s natural party of government. During this grand coalition the SPD could thus sandwich the CDU/CSU between the centre-left and a rising euro-sceptic, populist right.
Hence, Germany’s Social Democrats have fewer reasons to fear the new coalition with CDU and CSU.